Culinary Arts

What Is Cream of Tartar? Learn About Cream of Tartar and Culinary Uses of Cream of Tartar

Written by MasterClass

Jun 6, 2019 • 5 min read

Cream of tartar helps to make cakes rise, creams fluff, and pots and pans gleam like new. And it almost never goes out of date.

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What Is Cream of Tartar?

Potassium bitartrate, or potassium hydrogen tartrate, is an acidic compound that grapes produce as they ferment. The cooking world knows it by the name cream of tartar, and it was a cupboard staple until recent times.

Is Cream of Tartar Cream or Powder?

Contrary to what the name suggests, the substance is a white powder—not a cream. It is a natural by-product of the winemaking process, in which the tartaric acid in grapes crystallize on the insides of wine barrels. Sometimes, these crystals also gather on the sides of chilled wine or grape juice bottles, or even jam jars. A purified version of the crystals is sold under the name cream of tartar.

What Is Cream of Tartar Used For?

Cream of tartar is a common baking ingredient. It is a key component of snickerdoodle cookies and also frequently appears in meringues and whipped cream.

It has four main uses:

  • As a leavening agent. Combine cream of tartar with baking soda and you get your own baking powder. This is because the two ingredients combine to produce carbon dioxide gas, making baked goods rise and puff up. The advantage to using this old-school method is that cream of tartar has an almost endless shelf life, whereas baking powder will typically lose its potency after just six months. A cook almost never has to worry whether their cream of tartar will be off.
  • To stabilize egg whites. Adding a small amount of cream of tartar helps to speed up the formation of air bubbles when whipping egg whites—and stabilises them so they’re unlikely to collapse from over-whipping. This is why cream of tartar is often in the recipe for airy desserts such as angel food cake, meringue pie, and macaron cookies. About 1/8 of a teaspoon of cream of tartar per egg will produce the desired effect.
  • To stabilise whipped cream. Cream of tartar has a similar effect on whipped cream, giving structural support to the air bubbles and producing a thicker, whiter, and more lustrous mixture.
  • To prevent sugar crystalizing. This is why cream of tartar features in snickerdoodles, which have a soft, chewy texture rather than the crunch you might expect from sugar cookies. It’s also what gives the cookies their slight acidic tang.

Can You Substitute Cream of Tartar? 4 Cream of Tartar Substitutes

It’s impossible to exactly replicate the flavor and texture cream of tartar gives to a recipe. However, cooks have a few options.

  • Baking powder. If you need a cream of tartar substitute for leavening, baking powder is the obvious solution. Since it’s normally the combination of cream of tartar with baking soda that creates the raising effect, you’ll need to omit the baking soda too. One teaspoon of baking powder replaces a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda and half-teaspoon cream of tartar.
  • Lemon juice or white vinegar. Replace one teaspoon of cream of tartar with two tablespoons of another acidic ingredient to activate the leavening effect of baking soda. This is also a good option to give a boost to whipped egg whites—use about half a teaspoon of lemon or vinegar per egg. Beware that at this higher quantity, the acidic ingredients will add more tart flavor.
  • Buttermilk or yoghurt. These diary products are acidic, meaning they can combine with baking soda in recipes to activate the leavening effect. A half-cup of buttermilk or thinned yoghurt can replace a quarter-teaspooon of cream of tartar—but you’ll need to remove a half-cup of some other liquid from the recipe or the batter will be too runny.
  • Nothing. When it comes to whipping cream or egg whites, cream of tartar is an aid and not an essential, so you have the option to omit it entirely and rely on your baking expertise to achieve fluffy results. This does not apply to cookie recipes or cake batters, however, where another leavening agent must replace the cream of tartar.

4 Other Uses for Cream of Tartar

There’s another reason why resourceful people consider cream of tartar a storeroom staple for the home—it’s a great natural and non-toxic cleaning product. Try these formulations:

  1. Lemon juice and cream of tartar in a 1:1 mixture to polish copper. Just rub on and rinse off.
  2. White vinegar and cream of tartar in a 1:1 mixture to clean porcelain bathroom surfaces, including the toilet.
  3. A paste of water and cream of tartar to clean stainless steel and aluminum appliances.
  4. White vinegar and cream of tartar in a 4:1 ratio as an all-purpose scrub.

4 Easy Recipes Using Cream of Tartar

Try these four easy recipes using cream of tartar.

  1. Meringues. These crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside cookies are one of the classic cream of tartar recipes. Just whip the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt at room temperature using an electric mixer, adding sugar in small amounts at a time. Once you’ve achieved stiff peaks, pipe the cookies onto a tray, bake at 225F for one hour, then turn off the oven and allow them to cool inside slowly with the door closed for another one to two hours.
  2. Whipped cream. For perfect, cloud-like whipped cream every time, cream of tartar is the not-so-secret weapon. Whip the cream with an electric mixer, slowly adding the sugar, cream of tartar and vanilla until you get stiff peaks. Serve on top of fruit, ice-cream or cake.
  3. Pavlova. Combining your meringue and whipped cream with fresh seasonal fruit will make a decadent pavlova. Simply pipe your meringue into one big disc instead of several small cookies, and top with whipped cream and chopped fruit once it’s completely cooled.
  4. Snickerdoodles. From their soft texture to the slight tang, everything unique about these simple sugar cookies they owe to cream of tartar. To make them, first cream together butter and sugar and add eggs. Then combine your dry ingredients—flour, salt, baking soda and cream of tartar—into the wet mix, roll into one-inch balls and bake.

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